Cloisonne beads are hollow metal beads, their surface is overlaid with a fine tracework of thin wires (filigree) forming a pattern which is filled with coloured enamels. Cloisonne work has become closely associated with China hence cloisonne beads are often used in jewellery designs to evoke an Oriental feel.
China is often credited as the birthplace of cloisonne metalwork but, in truth, the origins of this very ancient technique are far from clear. It probably evolved separately in several different places, and at several different times (could it be the work of time travelling aliens perhaps - only joking!). The first cloisonne pieces appear in prehistory but the technique is especially associated with the Byzantine Empire (330AD to 1453AD), the Frankish Kingdom (476AD to 751AD) and, of course, China from about 1430AD to the present day. China probably acquired the technique from Islamic migrants in the 1300's and it reached dazzling heights of beauty during the Ming Dynasty (1368AD to 1644AD).
The cloisonne process begins by forming the hollow metal bead, often from copper but it can be of any malleable metal. Next thin wires - filigree - are applied to the bead (sometimes the wires are twisted to enhance the visual impact of the finished bead) either by soldering or by gluing (the glue is burnt off during the enamel firing and the wire becomes fused to the enamel). The wires create a pattern of little compartments into which enamelling powder is carefully applied. After each application of powder the bead is fired so that the powder fuses into a hard glasslike substance (enamel) which fills each compartment. The bead will need to be fired several times during this process as the layers of enamel are built up. Then the bead goes through a multi-stage polishing process, which may include a final firing, until the enamel is uniform and lustrous, and the filigree pattern is visible all over the bead. Sometimes the compartments are only partly filled with enamel to allow the filigree to stand out as a three dimensional pattern on the bead surface. Finally, the bead is gilded with liquid gold or silver or, more often nowadays, it is electroplated with a thin layer of gold or silver coloured metal.
Cloisonne bead making is complicated, skilled, time-consuming work, and even mass produced cloisonne beads are each hand made by skilled artisans. At the top end of the market cloisonne beads are breathtakingly exquisite works of art with a price tag to match. At the lower end of the market they are mass produced and, because of the pressure to turn out large volumes quickly, lack the refined perfection of their upmarket relatives! Nevertheless, even the mass produced beads are beautiful objects with the power to enhance any piece of jewellery.
Cloisonne Beads - a little guide
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15 May 2009
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